Heracles, the first hydraulic engineer

According to historian Terje Tvedt the Greek god and hero Heracles derived from a much older Egyptian hero of similar name. The now submerged city Heracleion off the coast of the Nile delta was named after the god and Heracles plays a central role in the ancient literature of the region. The historian Diodorus of Sicily, who lived in the 1st. Century BCE, recounts Heracles’ story in detail. Among the many feats he describes, several are connected to hydrology. The most famous one is of course from the Twelve Labors of Heracles. Here is the original passage from Diodorus’ History:

“He received a Command from Eurystheus to cleanse the stables of Augeas, and to do this without the assistance of any other man. These stables contained an enormous mass of dung which had accumulated over a great period, and it was a spirit of insult which induced Eurystheus to lay upon him the command to clean out this dung. Heracles declined as unworthy of him to carry this out upon his shoulders, in order to avoid the disgrace which would follow upon the insulting command; and so, turning the course of the Alpheius river, as it is called, into the stables and cleansing them by means of the stream, he accomplished Labour in a single day, and without suffering any insult.”

Hercules the engineer as seen by Francisco de Zuraban

The story is reminiscent of the way ancient Egyptian society used the annual floods of the river Nile to fertilize but also clean the farm land along the river banks.

Here are two other hydraulic engineering feats:

“When Heracles arrived at the farthest points of the continents of Libya and Europe which lie upon the ocean, he decided to set up these pillars to commemorate his campaign. And since he wished to leave upon the ocean a monument which would be had in everlasting remembrance, he built out both the promontories, they say, to a great distance; consequently, whereas before that time a great space had stood between them, he now narrowed the passage, in order that by making it shallow and narrow​ he might prevent the great sea-monsters from passing out of the ocean into the inner sea, and that at the same time the fame of their builder might be held in everlasting remembrance by reason of the magnitude of the structures. Some authorities, however, say just the opposite, namely, that the two continents were originally joined and that he cut a passage between them, and that by opening the passage he brought it about that the ocean was mingled with our sea. On this question, however, it will be possible for every man to think as he may please.”

“A thing very much like this he had already done in Greece. For instance, in the region which is called Tempê, where the country is like a plain and was largely covered with marshes, he cut a channel through the territory which bordered on it, and carrying off through this ditch all the water of the marsh he caused the plains to appear which are now in Thessaly along the Peneius river. But in Boeotia he did just the opposite and damming the stream which flowed near the Minyan city of Orchomenus he turned the country into a lake and caused the ruin of that whole region. But what he did in Thessaly was to confer a benefit upon the Greeks, whereas in Boeotia he was exacting punishment from those who dwelt in Minyan territory, because they had enslaved the Thebans.”

Full text in english translation

River as a landscape – Nilotic landscapes

The “Palestrina Mosaic” or “Nile mosaic of Palestrina”, a town near Italy’s capital Rome, is a late Hellenistic floor mosaic depicting the Nile in its passage from the Blue Nile to the Mediterranean.

Around 100 BCE, Nile landscapes were quite a fashion in Roman art. In fact, wikipedia has a whole article on “Nilotic landscapes” as an art subgenre of its own. The allure of the Nile and it’s natural and social surrounding must have been so great across the Mediterranean world, that from Ancient Egypt to the Minoans (2.000 BCE), the Greeks (500 BCE), the Romans (until the 7. Century CE) and into the Renaissance in the 16. Century, Nile landscapes were a popular motive in painting as well as mosaics and tapestry.

The Palestrina mosaic shows beautifully how water, land, vegetation and social life were interconnected in the Egyptian societies along the Nile. It’s a fluid, constantly changing and evolving concept of landscape and of society, I find very inspirational.

Churning the Ocean of Milk

In Hindu cosmology there are seven oceans. One of them is the ocean of milk. In one of the most colorful episodes of Hindu scripture, the Samudra Manthana, the devas (gods) and asuras (demi-gods) team up to churn the ocean of milk to gain the nectar of immortality. The whole enterprise includes the uprooting of a mountain, a giant snake, lethal poison and an array of herbs and spices. Eventually the nectar of immortality is brought up from the sea and seized by the devas.

A covenant to keep the forces of chaos at bay

The book of Jeremiah in the Hebrew Testament discusses at large an ecological crisis around 600 BCE in the so called “Fertile Crescent” (a region encompassing today’s southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, and parts of Turkey and Iran). According to Michael S. Northcott in his book “A moral Climate” the crisis was brought about by agricultural over-exploitation of the land. The book of Jeremiah can thus be regarded as another climate narrative. The peoples of the Fertile Crescent were river peoples, their culture thrived on the waters of three rivers: Euphrat, Tigris and Nile. The ocean on the other hand was “seen as the primeval source of chaos, and this perhaps presents a cultural memory of prehistory in which the oceans had covered far more of the land than they have since the end of the last ice age,” writes Northcott. “For Jeremiah, the covenant that Yahweh made with the Israelites after their release from slavery in Egypt was therefore a cosmic covenant in which human work on creation ought to recognise the sustaining creative powers of the Lord of the earth in keeping the forces of chaos at bay:

Do you not fear me? says the Lord;
Do you not tremble before me?
I placed the sand as a boundary before the sea,
a perpetual barrier which it can not pass;
though the waves toss, they can not prevail,
though they roar, they can not pass over it.
[Jeremiah 5:22]”

In this passage from the ancient text, the sand on the beach is seen as the creative invention of the deity to keep the ocean where it belongs and the land with it’s human habitats where it belongs. It’s part of a greater deal, so to speak. In 600 BCE the ocean did not rise over the beach. In the present however, humans have not only begun to destroy beaches worldwide by extracitivist exploitation, the seas also rise. How do we then read the current situation from a Jewish, Old Testament perspective?

Very Large Floating Structures

To answer the never-tiring desire for more space for residential buildings along the coasts – nearly 50% of the industrialized world now lives within a kilometer of the coast – floating structures are repeatedly discussed in urbanization discourse. So called VLFS, very large floating structures, are a fashionable topic in architectural discourse – see for example the “Mega-Float” by Japanese architects M. Fujikubo and H. Suzuki from 2015 -, but so far no city has actually built one to house it’s residents. There are as far as I know only parking lots built on floating strutures in New York or Goetborg for example.

This image is from a brochure about the Floating Parking Garage in Goetborg

And there are of course accomodation units for employees working on off shore oil platforms. (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accommodation_platform )

As always – the idea of floating habitats is not a new one. The oldest source is – as almost always – Homer’s Odysee. There the hero sails to the island Aeolia, which is floating on open sea in the western Mediteranean. The island and the city on it are home to the god of Winds, Aeolus, thus the name of the island. Today a group of islands near Sicilly is refered to as Aeolian Islands.

Homer does not give away alot about his floating island and how and why it floats. This is the main passage from verse 10 of the text:

“Then to the Aeolian isle we came, where dwelt Aeolus, son of Hippotas, dear to the immortal gods, in a floating island, and all around it is a wall of unbreakable bronze, and the cliff runs up sheer. […] And the house, filled with the savour of feasting, resounds all about even in the outer court by day, and by night again they sleep beside their chaste wives on blankets and on corded bedsteads. To their city, then, and fair palace did we come…”

source: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0136%3Abook%3D10

Diodorus (1. Century BC) on the Destruction of Helice and Bura

“When Asteius was archon at Athens, the Romans elected six military tribunes with consular power, Marcus Furius, Lucius Furius, Aulus Postumius, Lucius Lucretius, Marcus Fabius, and Lucius Postumius. During their term of office great earthquakes occurred in the Peloponnese accompanied by tidal waves which engulfed the open country and cities in a manner past belief; for never in the earlier periods had such disasters befallen Greek cities, nor had entire cities along with their inhabitants disappeared as a result of some divine force wreaking destruction and ruin upon mankind.

The extent of the destruction was increased by the time of its occurrence; for the earthquake did not come in the daytime when it would have been possible for the sufferers to help themselves, but the blow came at night, so that when the houses crashed and crumbled under the force of the shock, the population, owing to the darkness and to the surprise and bewilderment occasioned by the event, had no power to struggle for life.

The majority were caught in the falling houses and annihilated, but as day returned some survivors dashed from the ruins and, when they thought they had escaped the danger, met with a greater and still more incredible disaster. For the sea rose to a vast height, and a wave towering even higher washed away and drowned all the inhabitants and their native lands as well. Two cities in Achaia bore the brunt of this disaster, Helice and Bura,1 the former of which had, as it happened, before the earthquake held first place among the cities of Achaia.

These disasters have been the subject of much discussion. Natural scientists make it their endeavour to attribute responsibility in such cases not to divine providence, but to certain natural circumstances determined by necessary causes, whereas those who are disposed to venerate the divine power assign certain plausible reasons for the occurrence, alleging that the disaster was occasioned by the anger of the gods at those who had committed sacrilege. This question I too shall endeavour to deal with in detail in a special chapter of my history.”

source: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0084%3Abook%3D15%3Achapter%3D48%3Asection%3D4

Greece, 1. Century BC, pagan; text; city: Helice

The Inundation of the city of Rhodes

Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1. Century BC) writes:

“At this time occurred the third inundation of the city of Rhodes, which destroyed many of its  p353 inhabitants. Of these floods, the first did little damage to the population since the city was newly founded and therefore contained much open space; the second was greater and caused the death of more persons. The last befell at the beginning of spring, great rain storms suddenly bursting forth with hail of incredible size. Indeed, hail-stones fell weighing a mina​ (94) and sometimes more, so that many of the houses collapsed because of the weight, and no small number of the inhabitants were killed. Since Rhodes is shaped like a theatre and since the streams of water were thus deflected chiefly into a single region, the lower parts of the city were straightway flooded; for, because it was thought that the rainy season of winter had passed, the drains had been neglected and the drainage openings through the city walls had become clogged. The water that suddenly gathered filled the whole region about the Market and the Temple of Dionysus; and then, as the flood was already advancing to the Temple of Asclepius, all were struck with fear and began to follow various plans for gaining safety. Some of them fled to ships, others ran to the theatre; certain of those overthrown by the calamity in their extremity climbed upon the highest altars and the bases of statues. When the city and all its inhabitants were in danger of being utterly destroyed, relief of a sort came of itself; for, as the walls gave way over a long stretch, the water that had been confined poured out through this opening into the sea, and each man soon returned again to his former place. It was to the advantage of those who were endangered that the flood came by day, for most of the people escaped in time from their houses to the higher parts of the city; and also that the houses were not constructed of sun-dried brick but of stone and that for this reason those who took refuge upon the roofs were safe. Yet in this great disaster more than five hundred persons lost their lives, while some houses collapsed completely and others were badly shaken.

Such was the disaster which befell Rhodes.”

from The Library of History

Greece; 1. Century BC; Pagan; Literature; City: Rhodes

Scipio looks back on the Ruins of Karthago

The greek historian Polybius, who lived in the era of the Punic wars around 200 BC reports about the Roman military leader Scipio after his troops conquered and burnt down Carthage:

“Turning round to me at once and grasping my hand Scipio said, ‘A glorious moment, Polybius; but I have a dread foreboding that some day the same doom will be pronounced on my own country.’ It would be difficult to mention an utterance more statesmanlike and more profound. For at the moment of our greatest triumph and of disaster to our enemies to reflect on our own situation and on the possible reversal of circumstances, and generally to bear in mind at the season of success the mutability of Fortune, is like a great and perfect man, a man in short worthy to be remembered.

Scipio, when he looked upon the city as it was utterly perishing and in the last throes of its complete destruction, is said to have shed tears and wept openly for his enemies. After being wrapped in thought for long, and realizing that all cities, nations, and authorities must, like men, meet their doom; that this happened to Ilium, once a prosperous city, to the empires of Assyria, Media, and Persia, the greatest of their time, and to Macedonia itself, the brilliance of which was so recent, either deliberately or the verses escaping him, he said:

A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish,
And Priam and his people shall be slain.

And when Polybius speaking with freedom to him, for he was his teacher, asked him what he meant by the words, they say that without any attempt at concealment he named his own country, for which he feared when he reflected on the fate of all things human.”

From Polybius, Histories, Book 38

Thanks to Holger Sonnabend for the lead.